Partial-birth abortion: dispelling the myths

WASHINGTON (BP)--Among the facts about partial-birth abortion: It is never necessary to save the life of the mother; rather, it exposes women to additional and substantial health risks.

Former Surgeon General Koop explained that, "Partial birth abortion is never medically necessary to protect a mother's health or her future fertility." Women who undergo partial birth abortion risk uterine rupture, abruption, amniotic fluid embolus, trauma to the uterus, iatrogenic laceration, secondary hemorrhage and infertility.

Warren Hern, MD, abortion practitioner and author of "Abortion Procedure," commented, "I have very serious reservations about this procedure.... You really can't defend it.... I would dispute any statement that this is the safest procedure to use." The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists [ACOG] released a Statement of Policy on Jan. 12, 1997, stating: "A select panel convened by ACOG could identify no circumstances under which this procedure ... would be the only option to save the life or preserve the health of the woman."

To dispel other myths about partial-birth abortion, here's a true-or-false test:

1. True or false: Partial-birth abortions are performed only in extremely dire circumstances, i.e., to save the life of the mother.

FALSE -- According to Dr. Martin Haskell, an abortionist who has performed more than 1,000 partial-birth abortions, about 80 percent are done for "purely elective" reasons. The other 20 percent are done for "genetic reasons," which includes such non-life-threatening conditions as having a cleft palate or Down syndrome. ("Shock-tactic ads target late-term abortion procedure," American Medical News, July 5, 1993.)

2. True or false: "Elective abortion" means electing an abortion in a tough circumstance rather than risking death.

FALSE -- "Elective" means that there is no medically necessary reason for the patient to undergo a certain procedure. For example, cosmetic surgeries such as facelifts or tummy tucks are considered "elective" procedures. Thus, an elective partial-birth abortion means that the mother could have given birth to a healthy baby, but chose to abort her child.

3. True or false: Although grotesque, the procedure of suctioning out the brains of the fetus is necessary, otherwise the fetus' head would be too large to pass through the birth canal.

FALSE -- In an Oct. 28, 1995, letter to Congressman Charles Canady, R.-Fla., Dr. Pamela Smith, director of medical education in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago said that "cephalocentesis (drainage of fluid from the head of a hydrocephalic fetus) frequently results in the birth of a living child." She adds that "relaxing the uterus with anesthesia, cutting the cervix (Duhrssen's incision) and Caesarean section are the standard of care for a normal, head-entrapped breech fetus."

4. True or false: In a partial-birth abortion, the anesthesia the woman receives for pain actually kills the baby so that he or she feels no pain.

FALSE -- During testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in November 1995, Dr. Norig Ellison, president of the 32,000-member American Society of Anesthesiologists, said, "I believe this statement to be entirely inaccurate. I am deeply concerned, moreover, that the widespread publicity given to Dr. McMahon's [a deceased California physician who performed partial-birth abortions and previously testified before Congress] testimony may cause pregnant women to delay necessary and perhaps life-saving medical procedures, totally unrelated to the birthing process, due to misinformation regarding the effects of anesthetics on the fetus." Dr. David Birnbach, director of obstetric anesthesiology at St. Luke's Hospital in New York, said, "Every day we have pregnant patients who get anesthesia -- women who break their ankles, need knee surgery, have appendectomies, gallbladder removals, breast biopsies, and so on. Anesthetics done safely by an anesthesiologist do not do harm to either the mother or the baby."

5. True or false: The underdeveloped fetus does not feel pain from the partial-birth abortion.

FALSE -- Professor Robert White, director of the division of neurosurgery and brain research laboratory at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, told the House Constitution Subcommittee that "the fetus within this time frame of gestation, 20 weeks and beyond, is fully capable of experiencing pain. Without a doubt, this is a dreadfully painful experience for any such infant subjected to such a surgical procedure." Paul Ranalli, M.D., a neurologist on the medical faculty at the University of Toronto, stated: "Intriguingly, far from being less able to detect pain, such premature newborns may be more sensitive to painful stimulation." He said that one study, regarding babies born under 30 weeks, indicates it may be that "the newly-established pain system is 'raw' and unmodified at such a tender age."

6. True or false: The Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act would force women whose children had died in their wombs to keep carrying them.

FALSE -- Abortion stops a progressing pregnancy. If the child has already died in the womb, removing the corpse would not ever be considered an abortion, especially not a partial-birth abortion. The Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act specifically defines a "partial-birth abortion" as "an abortion in which a physician delivers an unborn child's body until only the head remains inside the womb, punctures the back of the child's skull with a sharp instrument, and sucks the child's brains out before completing delivery of the dead infant."

7. True or false: It is illegal to perform abortions after the first trimester (the first three months of pregnancy). It is also illegal to perform abortions for reasons like sex selection.

FALSE -- The 1973 Supreme Court decisions on abortion (Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton) struck down state laws which protected the lives of unborn children. The court did not provide any protection for the unborn at any point in pregnancy. Because of the "health" exception which came from the Doe v. Bolton ruling, any abortion, at any time, using any method, is effectively legal. (Poll numbers show that more than 70 percent of American adults do not know that abortion is legal past the first trimester.) Although Roe is better known, Doe, a case decided on the same day as Roe, extended Roe throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy.

8. True or false: If a woman experiences trouble late in her pregnancy, she has to have an abortion or she may not be able to have future children because her uterus may rupture.

FALSE -- The primary cause of sterility is blockage in the fallopian tubes. According to Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, sterility in a late-term pregnancy situation rarely happens and is most likely to be caused by a ruptured uterus. If the uterus is in danger of rupture, physicians usually drain some fluid or proceed with a C-section. The normal course of action would not be a partial-birth abortion. A woman who experiences late-term problems in her pregnancy does not need to fear blockage in her fallopian tubes or interruption in her egg cycle, Stevens said.


Adapted and used by permission from the Family Research Council.

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